If a homesick Italian tourist wandered off Michigan Avenue into Acanto, the latest among many new restaurants to call themselves Italian over the last year or so, he wouldn't be much comforted. Yes, there's pizza and pasta, polenta and salumi, grappa and panna cotta, and a wine list that goes up and down the Boot. But Acanto, which replaced the elegant French Henri, is more or less nominally "Italian," breaking a number of cardinal rules with its large portions, complicated dishes with too many ingredients, salad the appetizer rather than salad the late-course digestive aid, and—che porca miseria!—meat and vegetables sharing plate space.
The second time I visited they'd even reprinted the menus with the pastas at the bottom of the page below the secondi, as if your guts wouldn't erupt if you tried to eat your spaghetti after your veal Parmigiano. That was just an experiment, I was told, to see if diners would order more chicken marsala and suckling pig, and the courses came out in the proper order. But it just goes to show that gregarious Billy Lawless, he of the Dawson and the neighboring Gage, is offering a restaurant for the rest of Michigan Avenue. That sorry Italian tourist should just keep moving.
That being said, chef Christopher Gawronski, who took over Henri after Dirk Flanigan left and is staying put at Acanto, doesn't have much to be ashamed of. He's amassed a collection of busy, indulgent dishes that certainly refer to Europe, but mainly address open-minded—perhaps greedy—American appetites. Big, chewy baked clams almost get lost in a matrix of bread crumbs, salumi cotto, and pickled shallots in a likeable starter that wouldn't make anyone blink if it were served next door at the Gage. A radicchio and white bean salad is overample in its own way, a textural exercise loaded with fennel, arugula, raisins, pine nuts, and thick, crunchy bits of pancetta; it and a few of those clams could stand on their own as a very good light lunch. Likewise a crispy, gooey-on-the-inside puck of polenta topped with a slab of cotechino and a quail egg, ribbons of pancetta to the side, would make an appropriate hangover brunch. A prettily composed cuttlefish and octopus duo is easier to handle, but its abundance of garnishes—figs, radish slices, and fiery circles of Fresno chile—make up a dish that wouldn't be out of place on a more fussy menu, maybe if this were really the Italian Henri. Which it isn't. These are plates that seems to come from a different kind of restaurant.
Pastas are similarly busy, but hard to dislike. Tensile strands of thick duck-egg spaghetti twirl among spicy ground pork, pearl onion, and bitter rapini in creamy sauce, all showered with a snowstorm of Parmesan. Clams and mussels strewn among bright green pencil-thin tubes of casarecci and bright red stewed peppers look like Christmas on a plate. Wrapped penny-candy-shaped pasta pockets filled with molten Taleggio nestle among a vivid trio of sauteed beet greens, deep-purple roasted beets, and slices of candy-striped pickled Chioggia beets. The only pasta that doesn't seem dressed to watch the Hunger Games is a hearty bowl of spicy rigatoni with lamb ragu, bread crumbs, and melted caciocavallo cheese.
If you're proceeding from pasta, second courses might present a challenge to your endurance. Bronzed, fat-slicked suckling pig presented three ways—a luscious chop, a quivering slab of porchetta, and a pan-seared slice of house-made Spam—is arrayed over a landscape of black beans, mushrooms, and tomatoes. Boulders of tender veal Parmigiano rest on a floor of beech and hen of the wood mushrooms, capers, and cured tomatoes, while a thick cut of delicately seared alabaster swordfish takes a dip in a mildly spicy nduja brodo among sliced fennel and chickpeas. A roasted half chicken bathes in sweet marsala- spiked sauce with chanterelles, eggplant, and cauliflower.
Any one of these entrees would ruin a stomach's capacity for dessert—if you were Italian you'd be finishing with fruit anyway—and it will be a shame if pastry chef Mitsu Nozaki's work is neglected. She rests a smooth, creamy orb of panna cotta in a pool of tangy cherry soup and tops it with two tiny, chewy amaretti cookies, which I'd happily eat from a bag. But it's her crostata al forna—a molded disk of shortbreadlike pastry filled with rich house-made ricotta, topped with orange marmalade and whipped cream so thick you could walk on it—is in the running for my favorite dessert of the year. But if you're really at maximum capacity you might make way for a small coupe of affogato con liquore: scoops of house-made gelato doused in bitter digestivi, say, pistachio with Amaro Nonino. Good for the guts.
Acanto is a much chummier, less intimidating environment than its cool, blue predecessor. It's open for lunch, and the overdressed pizzas with their sturdy, doughy crust will welcome plenty of (nonItalian) tourists between its dark-wood-and-crimson walls into its leather booths under the chalkboard specials, or at the marble high-tops before the bar.
Still, the restaurant has achieved singularity, assuming an identity distinct from all the other young Italians in town. It isn't redefining Italian like Cicchetti, or faithfully adhering to a regional cuisine like Osteria Langhe, nor is it the extravagant piscine indulgence of Nico Osteria or the more old-school version of that at Joe Fish.
Its cheffy excesses may make some Italophiles sound the alarm. But most people will just shrug and dig in. Either way, Acanto is a very good un-Italian restaurant.
Disclosure: On one occasion I dined with an acquaintance of spirits director Mike Page, who sent out several dishes on the house.